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What presidential biographies can teach presidents -- and the rest of us

Learning from the masters


In this story:

The making of a good biography

Novel characters

Viable form


(CNN) -- As President-elect George W. Bush moves through his transition period, he can solicit advice on the presidency from most every quarter -- his father, a host of elder statesmen, even his soon-to-be predecessor -- if he so desires.

And he can also turn to the wealth of material that has been written about and by our chief executives.

How can these biographies and autobiographies serve a president? The same way books about any leader can: by putting under a microscope his strengths and weaknesses, offering suggestions on how others handled the great dilemmas of their times, say historians.

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"A president can discover the secrets of leadership (through presidential biographies)," says Susan Dunn, a professor of the history of ideas at Williams College in Massachusetts, and co-author of the forthcoming "The Three Roosevelts" (Atlantic Monthly Press). "The biography of a president can answer the questions of 'What were a president's leadership qualities? What was their courage, what were their convictions, what was their character?' "

The making of a good biography

Where should the president-elect start?

Presidents make good copy, and that's as attractive to historians as it is to journalists. There are thousands of presidential biographies out there. Some are mythmaking piffle, such as Parson Weems' biography of cherry-tree-cutting, silver-dollar-throwing George Washington. Others are so dense they could be used to build houses.

Presidential historian Fred I. Greenstein, the author of "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from Roosevelt to Clinton," says that a good presidential biography should offer both a personal narrative on the man and the context of his place in history.

Biographies of past commanders-in-chief such as Truman and Theodore Roosevelt were the favorite reading materials of Clinton and pundits tried to determine how his subject matter would reflect in his decisions  

"A successful biography should provide an accurate portrayal of the president's life while getting to the essence of him as a human being," he says. "It should also establish how his personal and political qualities -- and the context in which he found himself -- combined to produce his historical legacy."

Ironically, the person least equipped to do that is usually the president himself, says Vanderbilt professor Erwin C. Hargrove, author of five books on the presidency.

"Presidential memoirs, for which publishers pay obscene fees, are almost always bad," he says. "They are written by factories of staffers and are self-congratulatory."

How should presidents read?

Presidents should read about presidents, Fred Greenstein says, but there's no guarantee they will profit from doing so.

Bill Clinton loved reading histories and biographies, met with historians and political scientists, but may not have used any of that knowledge to his benefit. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan mainly read popular fiction, but historians agree he was greatly effective, especially in his first term.

So, when does reading history work?

When it's read shrewdly. Greenstein has an example: John F. Kennedy, quite a canny reader, was a fan of Barbara Tuchman's World War I chronicle "The Guns of August." During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the lessons of that book -- which showed how the immobile determination of Europe's leaders plunged that continent into war -- "reinforced (Kennedy's) impulse to proceed with extreme caution," the historian says.


In recent years, a cottage industry has formed around ex-Cabinet members writing their own memoirs of their time in and around the White House. Until about 25 years ago, these autobiographies respected them men wo occupied the Oval Office. "They were laudatory," says Dunn. "These people were proud to serve their great men. Kennedy's men -- (Ted) Sorensen, (Arthur) Schlesinger -- they loved him. They weren't about to betray him (in their memoirs)."

The tide may have turned with the men of the Nixon administration, many of whom had axes to grind. Their writings started a veritable Banzai Pipeline of recollections, a torrent of numbers of Reagan and Clinton staffers determined to put down their version of events.

Still, says Dunn, even these serve a valuable purpose.

"Historians rely on memoirs,” she says. "Some of these works may be accurate, funny, and revealing, especially if they're candid."

Novel characters

Almost all works about presidents are biographical or autobiographical. Outside of a handful of thrillers, presidents -- even fictional chief executives -- seldom appear as characters in novels. (To be fair, Gore Vidal's novels are full of presidents, and Richard Nixon made a dandy character in Robert Coover's "The Public Burning." But they are the exceptions, not the rule.)

"Perhaps the role doesn't lend itself to imaginative embellishment," says Greenstein. "Indeed, I am hard pressed to think of any American political novel of great stature."

President Kennedy was a voracious reader and used past presidents' biographies as teaching lessons  

"There are very few good political novels because serious novelists - - as distinguished from journalists who write popular novels -- know little about politics," adds Hargrove. He observes, however, "that there are a good many 'political' novels set in the military or in academic life," and gives C.P. Snow's "The Masters" as an example.

A novelist, at least, is allowed to make things up. Historians have to wade through countless letters, memos, orders, newspaper articles and media coverage -- not to mention previous works -- to write their presidential books.

"There's an overwhelming amount of material," says Dunn. "You have to choose. It's a creative act, and also subjective, so the author of a biography paints his or her own portrait. And you want to make that an interesting read and well written."

Viable form

If the book is well done, there's no shortage of readers. Certain presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, continue to dazzle in the public mind, and books about them are perennial bestsellers. But there's a hunger to learn about almost every man who has served as chief executive. Even multi-volume works, such as Robert Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson, are popular reads.

"There is a continuing market for lives of presidents," says Greenstein, who cautions that a volume’s heft is no guarantee of greatness. "Often such works reverse the slogan of The New York Times -- publishing all the information that fits, rather than all the information that is fit to print, in order to illuminate the book's subject."

Until about 25 years ago, staffers' memoirs were respectful of the man in the Oval Office. "These people were proud to serve their great men," says Dunn. "Kennedy's men -- (Ted) Sorensen, (Arthur) Schlesinger -- they loved him. They weren't about to betray him."

Should the new president even bother?

The well-read Bill Clinton provides a mixed example. In the early days of his term, he reportedly immersed himself in presidential biographies, from David McCullough's "Truman" to Edmund Morris' volume on Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, the historians say, they apparently had little effect on his style or his programs.

Staff for Nixon were among the first to write books examining Watergate and the fall of the president  

Greenstein has a story about Clinton's reading habits. "I was in the Clinton White House for a signing ceremony ... and was struck that he had a small library of recent books on the presidency behind his desk. One was a book that discusses the politically costly disorganization of Kennedy's White House," he recalls. "When that book was published Clinton had invited its author to meet with him and never touched on the theme of White House organization, which is one of the weak points of Clinton's leadership."

Dunn has her own quarrel with the departing president. "What's amazing to me is that Clinton read the biographies of the great presidents and ignored their anti-centrist message,” she says. “You can't be a great president from the center. Why he didn't pick this up, I don't know."

Hargrove suggests that biographies can be an adjunct to a president's learning, but says chief executives might be better served by books on management.

"They must read purposefully about their near-past predecessors with the right questions in mind," he says. "But there are other books they should read about the presidency that would be of greater immediate assistance -- about staffing the White House or patterns of decision-making. They don't usually read such stuff and don't even know about it."

And if Bush has little inclination to read, he's in good company.

"FDR was not a great reader," Dunn says. "He learned from people and experience.

"The qualities that we look for in a great leader don't come out of books," she adds. "Fire, conviction, character -- that's what matters."

On the literary campaign trail
August 31, 2000

Presidents of the United States
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